The last time Khalid Hill carried the ball in a game, he was 10 years old and just learning how to play football.
The carry went for 60 yards — but not a touchdown — and it marked the final highlight of what Hill described as a “great” but brief career as a youth football running back.
Now a redshirt junior on the Michigan football team, Hill — recruited as a tight end by former coach Brady Hoke — may soon find the ball in his hands again. After a mutual decision between Hill and current head coach Jim Harbaugh, sparked in part by Hill’s performance as an injury replacement against BYU last season, Hill will move back off the line of scrimmage and transition to the fullback position this year.
He’s not alone in that regard — former defensive lineman and fellow redshirt junior Henry Poggi, who made the switch to offense last season and played several snaps at tight end, is also making a full-time move to fullback in 2016.
Though playing in the backfield versus on the line of scrimmage sounds fundamentally different on paper, tight ends and fullbacks don’t function that differently in Harbaugh’s offense, making the transition a little more seamless for two players with tight end experience.
“They’re basically the same thing — the tight ends just run a lot more routes,” Hill said.
Hill, who previously stood tall on the line and focused on his routes, has worked extensively on playing lower and blocking in the backfield. And of course, matching up with players like senior cornerback Jourdan Lewis and redshirt sophomore safety Jabrill Peppers instead of defensive linemen brings a new set of challenges.
“At fullback, you’re four or five yards deep in the backfield,” Hill said. “You come out of the backfield and either you’re in the hole or you’re going outside to block a guy. You’ve gotta worry about a DB or somebody who’s quick or agile — like Jourdan Lewis is one of the hardest players to block because he can move and dip, and Jabrill is another one.”
Neither Hill nor Poggi is averse to blocking, though. Harbaugh has regularly valued a hard-hitting style in his fullbacks — his frequent usage of then-senior Sione Houma last season is a prime example — and the new fullbacks have been quick to embrace that mindset.
“There’s always gonna be some sort of physical play during it,” Poggi said. “I like that a lot. I like coming downhill and smashing skulls with guys. (We) get the ball, too, which is very nice — something that we’ve been working on.”
Such is another benefit of being a Harbaugh fullback — not only are they frequently used in blocking situations, but they get their fair share of touches as well. Last season, Houma and then-fifth-year senior Joe Kerridge combined for 57 carries, 246 yards and six touchdowns. Houma had never run the ball or scored a touchdown in his first three years on the field at Michigan, but he became a go-to goal-line option last season, getting 43 carries and finding the end zone five times.
Hill and Poggi have zero career rush attempts between them, but that hasn’t deterred them from taking advantage of their chance to see the field. Kerridge and Houma have already laid out the model, and their successors know they’ll have plenty of chances to follow it.
“(Harbaugh) gives us a lot of opportunities,” Hill said. “He wants everybody out there to get their chance to go do something good.
“I feel like replacing those two guys is gonna be tough, because they set a standard. Me and Poggi, (Bobby) Henderson, we’ve all been working to fill those steps that they had.”
After 10 years, Hill may not have another 60-yard run in him, but if recent history is any indication, he might just get another chance to make it to the end zone.